White-on-White: The Overbearing Whiteness of Warhol Being

By Nettleton, Taro | Art Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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White-on-White: The Overbearing Whiteness of Warhol Being

Nettleton, Taro, Art Journal

I am grateful for the feedback I received while working on this article, especially from Douglas Crimp, Simon Leung, and Michelle Puetz. Thanks also to Robert Summers for allowing me to deliver an earlier version of this piece at the conference "Queer[ing] Warhol: Andy Warhol's (Self-) Portraits," held at the California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside, January 2002.

Vacant, vacuous Hollywood was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into. Plastic.White-on-white. -Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism

Elvis was a hero to most,

But he never meant shit to me 'cause he was straight up racist

The sucker was simple and plain,

Motherfuck him and John Wayne.

-Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"

In his essay "Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia," Jonathan Flatley persuasively argues that the use of a Pop aesthetic allowed Andy Warhol to gain access to the public sphere and "bring himself and his friends inside it as active participants."1 For Flatley, Warhol's Factory-which might be understood as Warhol's counter-Hollywood-and its products functioned as "queer versions of what Nancy Fraser has called subaltern counterpublics."2 As such, the Factory as well as the Pop aesthetic allowed "outsiders" like Warhol and others from his milieu to "acquire a public persona .. land] participate in 'utopias of self-abstraction' that enable us to feel as if we have transcended our particularity."3 However, it is worthwhile to complicate our understanding of Warhol's counterpublic by recognizing that in terms of chromatic makeup, Andy got what he wanted. Just like the Hollywood he adored, his own public sphere pretty much retained a whiteon-white cast. Using Flatley's essay as a starting point, I hope to show that the access to self-abstraction was unevenly distributed, even within Warhol's counterpublic.

An interview with Mario Montez in the 1968 Warhol issue of Film Culture suggests that some members of the Factory were not allowed to transcend their embodied particularities at all. In recounting an incident that occurred during the shooting of one of Warhol's films in which he starred, Montez expresses dissatisfaction with Warhol and claims that he sees through Warhol's antics: "I think he's trying to bring out the worst in me-like in the 14 YEAR OLD GIRL-I was holding a cigarette in a holder and he zoomed in on my arm so that you could see my huge veins."4 What Montez sees in Warhol is certainly not a wish to facilitate Montez's self-abstraction, but rather an underhanded attempt to undermine any such attempt. Montez's suspicion that Warhol would much rather focus in on his "humiliating particularities" than his performance of self-abstraction is confirmed by Warhol's own account: "When he saw that I'd zoomed in and gotten a close-up of his arm with all the thick, dark masculine hairs and veins showing, he got very upset and hurt and accused me in a proud Latin way, 'I can see you were trying to bring out the worst in me." Repeating Montez's account almost word for word, Warhol makes explicit that it was Montez's masculinity that he zoomed in on and that Montez's response to this incident was an expression of his Latin-ness.

How do we reconcile such an anecdote with Warhol's purported intentions to project himself and his stars into publicity through a transcendence of particularities? If "white-on-white" was all Warhol ever wanted, it might very well be that those who were not white were marginalized even within Warhol's counterpublic space. Warhol was never one to indicate any explicit political stance, and the politics of race were certainly no exception. Still, given the fact that most of his work involved photographing, rephotographing, filming, and silkscreening white people's faces, it seems politically counterproductive and perhaps even disingenuous to write about the heterogeneity of Warhol's milieu, corpus, or both without qualifying this heterogeneity on the basis of color.

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